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Smart Home

Google Assistant is spreading, but it needs its own 'Echo Dot'

Google's giving developers the keys to its digital assistant, but lacks cheap, first-party options.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At the Google I/O Developer Conference, I tried a cocktail made by the Google Assistant. The man who showed off this voice controlled mix master also hosted a session in which he described the possibilities for the future of Google's voice control platform. Chris Ramsdale, the lead product manager for the company's digital assistant, talked about building it into Wi-Fi routers, cars, and ovens.

Ramsdale wasn't making product announcements for Google, instead he was getting a room full of developers excited about the possibilities of Google's smart home. Google recently opened its digital assistant to developers. The Google Assistant still trails Amazon's assistant Alexa in device versatility -- in particular it has no low cost entry point, akin to Amazon's $50, Alexa-equipped Echo Dot. Google's gamble is that its community of developers will help fill that gap.

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Seeking versatility

At I/O, Google announced a number of improvements to its smart speaker, the $130 Google Home, that will likely serve as the center of Google's smart home plans. Thanks to better features and improved compatibility with Google's own apps like Calendar and Maps, the Google Home is now in a good position to compete with and even outdo the Amazon Echo -- a similar smart speaker that also functions as a personal assistant, smart home controller, and music streamer.

Nevertheless, Amazon's assistant Alexa is still built into more first party smart speakers -- including our favorite of the bunch, the $50 Echo Dot. The Dot brings all of the Echo's functionality to a more compact speaker that plugs into your existing sound system. Amazon also has the portable Tap, and the upcoming Echo Show -- an Alexa device with a screen -- and the Echo Look -- an Echo device with a camera.

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In terms of dedicated smart speakers, Google still just has the Google Home. Until recently, the Google Assistant built into the Home was only available on that one speaker and certain Android phones like the Google Pixel. With I/O wrapping up, Google didn't mention any new version of the Home meant to compete with the ultra-affordable Dot. At least for now, the search giant is taking a different approach -- let the company's community of developers do the work for them.

Google's crowd-sourced smart home

Developers can now build Google-based voice control into whatever device they want, and create custom commands to go along with it. The Mocktails Mixer used the Assistant's normal voice to answer questions about weather, but switched to a different voice for the commands specifically built for the Mixer. Ramsdale didn't even need to use Google's traditional wake words "OK Google." He simply hit a button on the side of the machine and talked.

In theory, this will provide developers a simple path to create unique hardware that fits under Google's smart home umbrella. With the Assistant built right into an oven, you can hit a button and talk to your appliance. You can do this to an extent with the Google Home and certain commercial ovens from GE and Whirlpool, but you need to use awkward phrases to wake up the right skill.

Google Home can control certain large appliances from GE, Whirlpool, and LG.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

With GE smart ovens, for example, you need to invoke GE's smart bot Geneva and say a command such as "OK Google, ask Geneva Home to preheat the oven to 350 degrees." The Google Assistant can't recognize the attributes of the oven on its own, so you need to activate GE's custom program and ping GE's cloud to get a response.

An oven with the Assistant built in could supposedly avoid all of that. A developer could build customized language, and because the Assistant would already be tied to the hardware, it could control the oven while skipping the cloud entirely.

Google's already working toward building voice control into your TV, but ideally, you could soon control your smart home by talking to any entertainment device, or any appliance. I'd also wish for a voice control hub that could double as a SmartThings-like hub to help you connect peripherals like motion sensors to the cloud.

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Rallying the troops

At I/O, Google offered many inroads to developers looking to join its smart home team. Mark Spate and David Schairer -- the product and engineering leads for the smart home -- showed a simple path for integrating a new smart device into Google's existing smart home software. During the demo, Schairer even used the Google Actions program to build commands for new lightbulbs from scratch within about 10 minutes.

Other sessions talked about the "Google Home Graph" which allows developers access to consistent structures like rooms when they build a device. Vera Tzoneva -- who works on partners for the Assistant -- mentioned "implicit triggers" that will help app builders get their product discovered, as the Google Assistant will be able to recommend a specific third party skill if you say something like "OK Google, help me work out."

At the "What's new in Google's IoT platform?" session shortly after the main keynote, Google's developer advocate -- Wayne Piekarski -- even said, "The internet of things is going to be bigger than phones." Google's offering lots of branches to developers, and showed a commitment to getting them excited to work with their smart home platform at I/O.

Playing catch-up

The Home followed in the Echo's footsteps.

Chris Monroe/CNET

At present, Google still has a long way to go to catch the Echo in sales. Roughly 70 percent of people that own a smart speaker own one from the Echo line -- according to research firm eMarketer. Even opening up the Assistant to developers is playing catch up. Amazon's already done it, and we've seen Alexa pop up in intercoms, cool looking lamps, and even third-party speakers. But the Android operating system is the most popular in the world. At I/O, Google started to leverage its established Android community in the race to the smart home.

As Google is just presenting these options to developers now, we won't see a useful variety of third party devices built with the Google Assistant for awhile. Right now, if you want to talk to the Assistant, you're still limited to smartphones and the Google Home. Google greatly increased the number of compatible smartphones by bringing the Assistant to Apple's mobile operating system at I/O, but that still doesn't offer a simple, low cost way to get started with the Google smart home.

A bird in the hand

Meanwhile, the affordable Echo Dot continues to be the best available option for always-listening controls. I doubt anyone is going to hold off on buying a Dot for the possibility of something better from Google years down the line.

Eventually, creative new devices from its community of developers might add up to enough versatility to overtake Alexa and Amazon. Google's best near term bet is a new first party device -- a smaller, more affordable version of the Home. Google needs a Dot of its own. Thanks to its developers, the future of Google's smart home is promising. The present is still missing an easy way in.